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U.S. Chamber of Commerce sets sights on Democrats ahead of midterm elections

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; 11:55 PM

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, already one of Washington's largest lobbying groups, is gearing up to play a major role in this year's midterm elections on a scale that rivals the nation's two main political parties.

Modeled in part on Barack Obama's 2008 campaign juggernaut, the group has built a grass-roots operation known as Friends of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It has a member list of 6 million names, aimed at lobbying on legislation and swaying voters to back preferred candidates, primarily Republicans, in battleground areas, officials said.

The group will target vulnerable Democrats in up to two dozen states with ads, get-out-the-vote operations and other grass-roots efforts. The chamber plans to spend at least $50 million on political races and related activities this year, a 40 percent increase from 2008.

The strategy follows the chamber's record lobbying effort at the end of 2009, when it spent nearly $800,000 a day rallying opposition to Democratic proposals in Congress. All told, the organization spent more money on lobbying and political activities last year than either the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee, which serve as the main fundraising and grass-roots operations for the parties.

The chamber expects to focus its new efforts on about 10 Senate races and as many as 40 House districts, according to political director William C. Miller Jr. Although the group has yet to decide on endorsements for 2010, targets could include battleground states such as Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, Miller said.

The push is "the most aggressive voter-education and issue-advocacy effort in our nearly hundred-year history," Thomas J. Donohue, president and chief executive of the chamber, said this year.

The campaign poses both a threat and a potential opportunity for Democratic lawmakers and President Obama, whose relationship with the nation's largest business group has effectively collapsed amid bitter disputes over health-care reform, financial regulations and cap-and-trade pollution legislation. Democrats say they will attempt to use the chamber's increased aggressiveness to their party's advantage, part of a broader narrative casting Republicans as caring more about corporate interests than the needs of regular Americans.

R. Bruce Josten, the chamber's longtime chief lobbyist, said the group's accelerated activities reflect the high stakes of the issues under debate. "The business community has begun to get concerned that suddenly you're seeing an attempt at fundamental restructuring and reorganization of broad swaths of the U.S. economy," Josten said.

The chamber's potential impact on the November elections was bolstered further by a recent Supreme Court decision, which allows corporations and their surrogates to spend freely on political ads for and against specific candidates right up to Election Day.

Chamber officials declined to identify which lawmakers they are likely to target in November and said they are considering whether to weigh in on a limited number of primaries.

One early example of its influence came in January, when the chamber spent $1 million on ads to help Republican Scott Brown win a hotly contested special election for the U.S. Senate in Democratic-leaning Massachusetts. The group praised Brown as a candidate who "empowers business, not politicians" and hailed his Jan. 19 victory.

Brown was initially scheduled to be sworn in Feb. 11, but the group joined GOP leaders in pushing the date a week earlier. The change allowed Brown to take office just in time to cast a decisive vote against Craig Becker, a pro-union nominee to the National Labor Relations Board whom the chamber strongly opposed.

The group's heightened presence in the elections "is a real wake-up call for those of us on the other side," said Mike Gehrke, spokesman for Change to Win, a coalition of five major labor unions. "They're going to be bigger, they're going to be more aggressive and they're going to use tactics that progressives and Democrats have not seen a group like the chamber use before."

The chamber has long been active in politics, tapping a network of more than 6,000 local affiliates and serving as a reliable base of support for GOP candidates. The organization has supported a handful of Democrats in recent years, including centrist Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.). But eight out of 10 dollars spent by the group's political action committee in 2008 went to Republican congressional candidates; the organization officially stays out of the presidential fight.

At the outset of Obama's tenure, the chamber and the White House pledged to work together, and the business group provided crucial support for the administration's economic stimulus package. But relations quickly soured over Obama's other major priorities, including health-care legislation and attempts to rein in Wall Street.

White House visitor logs bear testimony to the deteriorating relationship: Donohue made a dozen stops at the executive mansion before June, when the visits abruptly stopped as Obama pushed ahead with policies the business lobby opposes.

Chamber officials say they remain willing to work with the administration on economic issues; the group strongly supports a $140 billion jobs bill approved this month by the Senate, for example. But, Josten said, "I don't think they've helped themselves by these populist rhetorical attacks from sector to sector to sector. You'd have to ask them about their attempts to make people villains."

The White House emphasizes the chamber's support for the stimulus package and for Obama's goal of doubling U.S. exports over the next five years. "While we might not agree on every issue, particularly the urgent need to pass health insurance reform and enact financial regulatory reform, we appreciate that there are areas where we share common ground," White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage said in a statement.

DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse is more blunt, saying the group "is one of the behemoths we're keeping a close eye on" heading into the midterm elections. Many Democrats note that local Chamber affiliates often have disputes with the parent organization, and they point out that Apple, Nike and several major utilities have quit the group or its board over its position on climate legislation.

The chamber has accepted as much as $20 million from insurance companies for ads opposed to Obama's health-care reform proposals and is leading an effort to spend up to $10 million on opposition spots this month.

"One of our biggest points going into this election will be how difficult it is to change Washington because of the moneyed interests like the Chamber," Woodhouse said. "We'll use the Chamber of Commerce and health insurance companies as Exhibit 1."

Republicans say the chamber will be crucial to their strategy of portraying Democrats as reckless in spending and ineffective in creating jobs. Ron Bonjean, a GOP consultant who worked as a spokesman for then-House Majority Leader J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), also said there is "a huge familiarity and friendliness" to the group because of its reach into local communities.

"It makes sense that the chamber would be incredibly active this election year, because the No. 1 issues that people care about are more jobs and more money for American families," Bonjean said. "I think they are in perfect symmetry with Republicans on that."

Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.

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